Photo Credit: Minestories.

The world’s fossil fuels are in limited reserves and are also in quick depletion. In 2004 Lawrence A. Taylor, director of the U.S. Planetary Geosciences Institute, told the AFP, “Just 25 tonnes of helium, which can be transported on a space shuttle, is enough to provide electricity for the U.S. for one full year,” noting that only 10 kilos of helium 3 are available on Earth. He added, “By 2050 the whole world will have a major problem. We need to be thinking ahead.” Helium 3 is a potential pollution-free nuclear fuel. It is believed that the Moon contains 10 times more energy (in the form of helium 3) than all the fossil fuels on Earth.

The exhaustibility of mineral resources on Earth and their almost infinite deposits on other planetary bodies in our solar system are fast leading to the development of a whole new industry spearheaded by exploratory-entrepreneurial visionaries. These space merchants, like the British who prospected North America for tobacco plantations, believe that space holds the best prospects for finding valuable minerals that could be exploited for usage here on Earth and beyond.

Asteroid Mining

On April 24 at the Museum of Flight in Seattle, Planetary Resources, Inc. made public its plan to mine near-Earth asteroids (NEAs) for resources. Series of robotic probes and unmanned spacecraft are to be launched, starting with their Arkyd-100 Earth-orbiting telescopes, to prospect candidate NEAs. Subsequently, they plan to launch new spacecraft to mine precious metals and extract water, which can be used for fuel and life-support systems for onward space exploration by humans.

Considering the array of various industry leaders backing this endeavor, it might as well be termed feasible and a done deal even before the start. Financiers of the asteroid-mining venture include Ross Perot, Jr. (chairman of Perot Systems) and Larry Page (CEO of Google). Planetary Resources was founded in 2009 by Peter Diamandis and Eric Anderson, who launched the phenomenon of “tourist astronauts” by pioneering the space tourism business with their company, Space Adventure. Backers of Planetary Resources include tourist astronaut Charles Simonyi, Google executives Eric Schmitt and Ram Shriram, and billionaire filmmaker James Cameron.

Diamandis said Planetary Resources “is establishing a new paradigm for resource utilization that will bring the solar system within humanity’s economic sphere of influence by enabling low-cost robotic exploration and eventual commercial development of asteroids.” This is certainly not the first time entrepreneurs are actively looking toward space with bold plans to prospect, exploit, and utilize its resources.

Moon Mining

Moon Express, Inc. which Forbes selected in 2011 as one of the 15 “Names You Need to Know,” has made known its interest in prospecting space for resources. On April 23 in Mountain View, Calif., MoonEx, the leading contender for the Google Lunar X Prize, announced that it had successfully delivered its Preliminary Design Checkpoint Technical Package to NASA under its $10-million Innovative Lunar Demonstration Data (ILDD) contract, providing NASA continuing data on the development of the company’s commercial lunar robotic missions and plans to mine the Moon for precious resources. MoonEx was selected in 2010 for this contract, which is granted only after technology is demonstrated, at the company’s own risk. Technology luminaries Naveen Jain (called the greatest entrepreneur on the planet) and Barney Pell teamed up with space visionary Robert Richards to form MoonEx in 2010. It is based at NASA Research Park in Silicon Valley.

In answering my question regarding what similarities or distinctions exist between these planetary mining companies, Richards said, “Basically, Moon Express plans to mine asteroids too. The main difference is that MoonEx is planning to mine asteroidal material on the Moon.” He further expatiated on the rationale for the Moon, listing reasons that included “proximity, shorter horizon, less risk, existing technology, known destination sampling, and distributed materials.” Asteroids, he said, “are far, far away, longer horizon, high-risk, no existing technology, no destination sampling, and concentrated materials.” From Richards’ analysis, the Moon has clear advantages from both business and technical perspectives.

Under a special partnership agreement with NASA, MoonEx in a way has hired NASA to help create a small, high-performance lunar lander system. “This will be launched starting from as early as 2014,” Richards said. If this launch date is accomplished, it will be the first time a commercial company will travel out of the Earth’s orbit to another world.

The Gains to Humanity

No matter how difficult mining these planetary objects might get, our corporate entities here on Earth are bound to benefit hugely from this new space industry when it succeeds. As I stated earlier, mineral resources are exhaustible, such that reserves here on Earth are fast being depleted by continuous exploitation, causing a lot of resource concerns. A new window to the infinite reserve of such minerals and more will do humanity much good in terms of abundance and prosperity.

New direct industries will be created and developed as a result of this planetary mining. In the past, space activities relied heavily on measuring “spin-offs” when counting the gains from space exploration, but this is bound to change. There is a huge prospect of new metals to be mined, which may lead to whole new industries and products and the driving down of product costs thanks to abundant supplies of primary resources. As a result, new hands and skills will be needed and developed, creating jobs for the entire economy.

Consciously or unconsciously, the activities of these planetary miners may further open up the final frontier and will enable human spaceflight. Planetary Resources already notedthat “water-rich NEAs will serve as ‘stepping stones’ for deep space exploration, providing space-sourced fuel and water to orbiting depots. Accessing water resources in space will revolutionize exploration and make space travel dramatically more economical.”

In essence, mining planetary bodies has both short- and long-term, known and unknown economic potential to meet humanity’s needs on Earth and for the development of outer space.

Ad Astra!

This blog first appeared on The Huffington Post on 5 February 2012.